I so wanted The Box to be a worthy successor to Donnie Darko, director Richard Kelly's first film and much-appreciated cult fave. Unfortunately, I didn't exactly get my wish.
The Box is a highly stylized, good-looking thriller, from the retro 1976 Virginia setting to the Barbie and Ken looks of leads Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. They play husband and wife Arthur and Norma Lewis, who run into a bit of a financial jam when a strange opportunity conveniently presents itself. A creepy, disfigured man (Frank Langella) offers them a million dollars if they push a button inside a box — but a stranger will die if they do.
Kelly has all the right elements and the creativity to give us a hip, entertaining thriller, but there are a number of blatant missteps that make the movie unsatisfying. To see more about what I mean, just read more.
Kelly puts his stamp on everything, namely the constant eerie atmosphere and the random sinister characters (apparently an old person standing still in the road is his trademark). Though many questioned the casting of Cameron Diaz and her requisite Virginia accent, there was a similar doubt when Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze were cast in Darko, and it ended up working. With Diaz, it's not that I would say that she nailed the part, but that the accent and greater aspects of the plot are very campy. And I like campy, but I don't know if that's what the film is going for.
If you're not taking it seriously, the movie is a pretty good time, with some frightening scenes and jumps. There are also many parts that are supposed to be creepy, but they're so labored that they come out as funny. Like, laugh out loud in the theater funny. I wouldn't call that a failure, I'd just invoke the term I used before: campy.
The major problem the movie runs into is when it begins exploring these sci-fi and supernatural angles, which end up being red herrings. For instance, much is made of Arthur's job at NASA and Mars, which made me think we were in for a weird, wild sci-fi ride. I was ready to embrace something really out there (I'm a big David Lynch fan, after all), but you don't really get it. There are so many elements that are introduced but never followed to a conclusion, so you're left shrugging your shoulders when the movie ends. It's even more perplexing because the mystery of The Box itself is explained, but you're left with all these details that went nowhere, in retrospect. It's one thing to leave things open-ended, but you have to give the audience something to work with.
Honestly, if you're a Kelly fan, you'll probably find it enjoyable. But if you want complete resolution, I'd wait for the director's cut.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.